Warm, interactive "Every Brilliant Thing" addresses depression and its fallout
There’s a moment in Duncan Macmillan’s play Every Brilliant Thing -- a University Musical Society presentation of the U.K.’s Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company production -- that straight-up gave me chills.
For actor/comedian Jonny Donahoe, playing the son of a woman struggling mightily with depression, briefly discusses how suicide tends to beget more suicide, and that the year after Marilyn Monroe killed herself, the rate of suicide in the U.S. rose by 12 percent.
Why did this pronouncement split the air in the Arthur Miller Theatre like a lightning bolt?
Because many in the community are still processing a young man’s death-by-suicide near the end of last week, in addition to a 15-year-old male’s completed suicide in May. The idea that these deaths might perpetuate even more like them feels unbearable to contemplate.
Yet Every Brilliant Thing nonetheless provides perhaps the best possible means for having a public conversation about depression and its fallout. Based on Macmillan’s short story Sleeve Notes -- a reference to what we call an album’s liner notes in America -- Brilliant begins with Donahoe cheerfully chatting up audience members and handing out pieces of paper, each with a number and an entry from his character’s constantly growing list of things that bring him joy.
Why does he make this list? Because when he’s seven, his mother makes her first suicide attempt, so the boy decides -- with the encouragement of a sock-puppet-wielding school counselor (played by an audience member) -- that presenting his mum with hundreds of things to live for might help her remember the good stuff.
We then follow the boy through his teen years, when his mother tries to kill herself again; his college years, where he’s inspired by a professor, and he falls in love with a young woman he meets in the library; and his marriage, which goes from blissful to strained.
You might balk at the idea of “interactive theater” -- I generally do, too, believe me –but Brilliant employs the gentlest, most humane approach to audience participation I’ve ever seen. The lights never go completely down in the crowd, thereby building a communal sense of togetherness among strangers; patrons with list entries in their hands do nothing more than announce their “thing” from their seat when Donahoe calls their number; and although a handful of audience members are asked, at various times, to stand in for the narrator’s father, professor, girlfriend/wife, counselor, and a veterinarian, their parts are simple, brief, and straightforward, and there’s little-to-no pressure to improvise.
Plus, it’s fun to see the ingenious ways Donahoe -- dressed in casual, contemporary clothes, so that you almost mistake him for an audience member gone rogue -- works around the inevitable challenges of this format. For instance, following an audience member’s marriage proposal, he tenderly accepts and says, “Let’s kiss later!”
This gets at why the hour-long Brilliant succeeds so well, and manages, in its sharply edited efficiency, to strike a profoundly resonant chord. The play's good-natured, openly candid approach, paired with Donahoe’s often comic, endearing warmth -- sometimes conveyed through his deep love of classic American soul music -- acknowledges the unshakable darkness of depression while simultaneously trying to fight it back.
The show’s single prop consists of boxes on a cart, reportedly packed with thousands of paper scraps with, well, brilliant things scribbled onto them. And you might initially assume that an enormous volume of joys would be a thing of childlike wonder. But then you realize that the size of the narrator’s ever-ballooning list of reasons to go on must also mirror the growing interior pull not to.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
"Every Brilliant Thing" runs through Sunday, September 17 at Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor. Visit ums.org for showtimes, tickets, and more information.